Rorate Caeli

Traditionalism and academic censorship - a personal experience and a very grave episode

by Dr. John Lamont

I recently had an experience that is very informative about the current status of tradition in the Church, and that deserves to be made public. Its importance lies in its revelation of the practice of silencing traditionalist theological positions, a practice that is usually carried out in private, but that is adhered to even by the most allegedly 'conservative' theological venues.

It will be helpful to provide some context for this episode. Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, an eminent theologian who is also a priest of Opus Dei, published an article in the Swiss edition of the theological journal 'Nova et Vetera' on the teaching of Vatican II on religious freedom (a translation can be found here: In it, he argued that this teaching did in fact reject prior magisterial teaching on the social kingship of Christ, but that this rejection was not an instance of the 'hermeneutic of discontinuity' condemned by Benedict XVI. Fr. Rhonheimer's position was found wanting by Prof. Thomas Pink of King's College London, and by the author of this piece, who contacted the editors of the English-language edition of Nova et Vetera and suggested that they might be interested in a reply to Rhonheimer. The editors welcomed this proposal, and encouraged me to submit a paper to them on this topic. An earlier version of the paper can be found here.

The paper disagreed with both Rhonheimer and Pink, and argued in favour of the traditional position on the relation between Church and State that was taught by Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and Pius XI. The editors reacted to the piece with enthusiasm. It was sent to referees, who reported favourably on it while recommending some changes. After these changes were made, the editors announced that the final product was of high quality and deserved publication, and stated that they would print it in Nova et Vetera. This was an important decision, because the traditional position on Church-State relations that was advocated by the paper has been denied a voice in Catholic academic circles for many years.

To explain the significance of the eventual destiny of this submission, it is necessary to expand a bit on the role of academic journals like Nova et Vetera. Such journals, along with academic publishers, perform the function of determining what is and is not considered to be serious scholarly work. What is printed by them counts as scholarship that is trustworthy and deserving of discussion, and what is not printed by them does not count as scholarly, is not a worthwhile source for a scholarly argument, and is not listed in bibliographies or taught in universities. Because journal articles are easier to read and easier to write than entire books, it is the journals rather than the academic presses that play the most important role in this function. There are obvious disadvantages to assigning this gatekeeping role to journals, but it is really a necessary function, because if it is not carried out it is too difficult for the individual scholar to judge the value of work that is not directly within his field of expertise - and given the number of academics trying to get published, it is even necessary within a given field, in order to cut down the amount of material that a scholar needs to look at to keep informed.

This necessary function imposes certain professional responsibilities upon journal editors that are universally recognised. It is not ethical for editors to refuse to publish articles simply because they disagree with them, or to publish articles simply because they agree with them, regardless of the scholarly merits of the articles in question; nor is it ethical for them to print articles because they are on good terms with the authors, or to refuse to print them because they are at odds with their authors. Provided that the articles submitted to the journal are within the area that the journal is devoted to, the sole responsibility of the editors is to print only articles that reach a high scholarly standard, and within the submitted articles that reach such a standard to print the best ones. In order to carry out this responsibility, the usual system is for the editors to send out submitted articles to referees who are specialists in the field that the articles address, and to remove any identifying signs from the articles so that the referees will not know who wrote them. The referees will thus be influenced only by the contents of the article, and not by the reputation or lack of reputation of its author.

These responsibilities are imposed by the role of academic journals within the academic system. They do not apply to non-academic journals which may reach or at least aspire to a high intellectual level, such as First Things; such journals in the end are advancing their own position in the marketplace of ideas, and their editors are free to reject items simply because they do not like their contents or their authors. Academic journals however are not supposed to be advancing the outlook of their editors, because if they do, the objectivity and hence the value of scholarship is lost. This does not mean that Catholic theology journals have a responsibility to consider or print views that reject Catholic doctrine, because such views reject the premise upon which the scholarly discipline of Catholic theology is based, and thus do not have a claim to scholarly consideration by Catholics; but it does mean that such journals cannot ethically enforce the personal views of their editors upon theological questions that are open to debate among Catholics.

Nova et Vetera is undoubtedly an academic journal. It describes itself in the following terms: "The English edition of Nova et Vetera is published quarterly and provides an international forum for theological and philosophical studies from a Thomistic perspective. Founded in 1926 by future Cardinal Charles Journet in association with Jacques Maritain, Nova et Vetera is published in related, distinct French and English editions. The English edition of Nova et Vetera welcomes articles and book reviews in theology, philosophy, and biblical studies that address central contemporary debates and discussions. We seek to be 'at the heart of the Church,' faithful to the Magisterium and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and devoted to the work of true dialogue, both ecumenically and across intellectual disciplines. Nova et Vetera is a peer reviewed journal ... Nova et Vetera practices blind review. Submissions are evaluated anonymously by members of the editorial board and other scholars with appropriate expertise." Its senior editor is Cardinal Georges Cottier, former papal theologian to John Paul II, and the editors of its English edition are Profs. Matthew Levering and Reinhard Huetter, both well-known academic theologians.

All this background explains both why the author of the present piece was pleased to have his paper accepted in Nova et Vetera, and rather puzzled when, after acceptance, the paper failed to appear in the journal. This puzzlement was replaced by astonishment when an enquiry about the article's date of publication elicited the following response from the authors (message published by recipient, as authorized by his and most jurisdictions, e-mail addresses omitted):

From: matthew levering
To: John Lamont
Cc: Reinhard Huetter
Sent: Thursday, 12 September 2013 1:09 AM
Subject: Nova et Vetera update

Dear John,

This morning I spoke with Reinhard Huetter, Nova et Vetera's co-editor, about N&V 12:1. He would prefer to wait until you are registered in a parish that is canonically in regular and full communion with the Roman Catholic Church and with its bishops in Australia and the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. From our conversation in Australia, my sense is that this will be soon; you are such a fine Catholic scholar. I have no doubt that you will soon be in full and regular communion with the Roman Catholic bishops in Australia and the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. So we are going to publish this excellent article asap, but it needs to wait until we hear the good news from you,

Yours in Christ,
Matthew (and Reinhard)

The conversation in Australia refers to a lunch that I had with Prof. Levering, when he was visiting Australia as a speaker for a conference on tradition at the University of Notre Dame Australia (see here: The question of my parish registration did not arise at that lunch. As it happens I am registered at a parish of the Archdiocese of Sydney, and in fact possess a canonical mandate to teach theology from the Archdiocese (cf. Canon 812 of the Latin Code); but since the requirement that I assure the editors of my registration in order to be published was an unethical one, I replied to both editors protesting the content of the email and declining to have my paper published in the journal. I received no reply to this protest, and since Prof. Huetter did not disavow Prof. Levering's message it can be concluded that he agreed with it. Prof. Levering is aware that I am not an Anglican or a member of the Orthodox Church or any other non-Catholic body, so his requirement that I be in 'full communion' with the Roman Catholic Church can only refer to my not having any association with the Society of St. Pius X.

The situation is thus as follows: the editors of the English edition of Nova et Vetera, one of the most well-respected 'conservative' theological journals in Catholic theology, have formally asserted

a) that a paper defending the traditional Catholic position on Church and State is of excellent quality and deserving of publication in their journal;

b) that the paper will be published by them;

c) partially withdrawing b), that the paper will be published by them provided its author is not associated with the Society of St. Pius X.

This unprofessional and unethical behaviour is something that needs to be made public in Catholic academic circles, and I have endeavoured to do this. But it has a broader importance as well, which is why it is of concern to Rorate readers generally. Universities and academics have all kinds of obvious and less obvious flaws and shortcomings, but they matter. A view that is denied any representation in academic circles will become unthinkable to the people who are educated at universities, and as a result will eventually become unthinkable to the society as a whole. Exclusion from academic respectability is one of the gravest problems that traditionalists face. Because their views have no representation among academics, they can be dismissed as backward and ignorant, and the reasons for their positions can be not simply dismissed, but entirely passed over in silence; thus permitting their opponents to concentrate entirely on the powerful strategy of rhetorical misrepresentation and abuse. And indeed, for non-traditionalists this lack of academic presence is a real stumbling-block. How can a theological position be taken seriously when virtually no-one with scholarly credentials has advanced it for more than fifty years? Are not the opponents of tradition correct when they claim that the adherents of traditionalist positions are amateurs who have adopted dated positions that struck their fancy, and repeat the slogans of antiquated reactionaries deservedly forgotten by those who actually know about the topic?

The great interest of the Nova et Vetera episode described above is that it lifts the veil on the process by which this anti-traditionalist academic consensus is produced, and shows that it has nothing to do with scholarly merit. A journal in a 'Thomistic perspective', whose editor-in-chief is the former papal theologian for John Paul II, can refuse to publish a paper arguing for a traditionalist conclusion not on the grounds of its scholarly quality - which it acknowledges to be excellent - but purely because the author's connections are thought to be suspect. This approach, rather than the intellectual merits of the traditionalist case, is what explains the absence of traditionalist scholarship in academic venues. It is my hope that by exposing one instance of this approach I may contribute to its being discredited.


Rorate note. This seems to be as good a moment as any to add one point to this chilling exposé by Dr. John Lamont. A point that we have wished to discuss for a long time and that has already been excellently covered by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf in his blog: in Canon Law there is no such thing as a general obligation for a layman to register in any parish. As Fr. Zuhlsdorf recalled then:

The faithful have a right to worship according to the proper rituals of the Church (can. 214), the right to apostolic activity (can. 216), the right to Christian education (can. 217), and corresponding obligations to “assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for the works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the decent support of its ministers.” (can. 222) and the obligation to remain in communion (can 209) and be obedient to their pastors (c. 212). By “pastors,” pastores, the Code means bishops, not parish priests.

These rights and obligations are normally, and properly exercised in parishes, which “as a general rule” are territorial (can. 518), but a bishop can establish parishes “by reason of the rite, language, or nationality of the Christian faithful of some territory or even for some other reason.”

Now that the big picture is established, let’s look at the specifics.

What's missing?

Any mention of “registration” – something that seems to have been a creation of North American pastors for various reasons.

Canon law does not recognize any impact of the notion of “registering” in a parish, which is largely unheard of in other parts of the world.

This "registration" may be common in other parts of the Anglosphere, and a kind of registration (not necessarily parish-related, but always declared before the State) is common in those German-speaking areas that kept the government-collected Church levy (Kirchensteuer), but it really is absurd to ask for this "parish registration", not being a canonical obligation, as a document needed for academic publication. We doubt this is demanded of all those who send material to the journal - is it? If a person declares himself or is known to be a Catholic, that really should be enough. What if the author were from a place (most places in the Catholic world) where there is no such thing as parish registration, what then would be asked? A baptismal certificate? A declaration from the parish priest? Signed when, in the past couple of months? Some proof of Catholicity is understandably demanded in different canonical settings by appropriate canonical authority (at Confirmation, Marriage, Seminary admission, Holy Orders, etc), not by an academic journal only asking it from Traditional Catholic authors; and not in the form of a "registration" which really is a non-canonical procedure that itself is uncommon in global Catholicism.

Plus, let us be honest, this card-carrying legalistic Catholicism promoted by the journal editor above seems to be the complete opposite of the Catholicism the current Pope -- whom he mentions twice by name and title ("the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis," lest one forgets) -- wants and calls for daily.

Unless, apparently, one has Traditional leanings. Then the identification card must be produced right away...